When National Geographic recently named Uganda among the world's top 20 destinations for tourists in 2013, it may have not been the first time a ranking of its kind was in favour of the country. However, the catch line used to describe Uganda spoke volumes.
Describing Uganda as "Africa's new frontier" in the rankings, which only had Malawi as the only other African country, sends out a strong message to neighbours Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, who have invested heavily in marketing their countries. National Geographic, one of the world's largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions, has done a good job blowing Uganda's trumpet.
It describes the country as "the land [that] mixes savanna, enormous lakes, rain forests, and the glacier-clad Rwenzori mountains, one of Africa's tallest ranges." It adds: "Uganda's parade of animals is amazingly diverse. Hippos graze along the shores of Lake Edward in Bwindi Impenetrable national park, while lions lounge in the trees of Ishasha, in Queen Elizabeth national park. The star in Bwindi is the mountain gorilla, a species down to about 720 animals visible in their tiny habitat."
CNN, one of the world's top news groups, also released its rankings that still favoured Uganda. CNN's first list of Africa's 10 best national parks had Kidepo Valley national park, making its debut in the rankings. Kidepo came third after renowned and well-marketed Maasai Mara (Kenya), and Botswana's Central Kalahari game reserve. Another CNN list of the seven new places ready to be discovered had Uganda in fourth position.
Industry players feel that Uganda's appearance on these lists is another indication that the country could be the region's tourism bigwig. Over the last two years, Uganda's international rating has improved tremendously. Lonely Planet, the world's leading travel magazine, ranked Uganda in 2011 as the world's number one tourism destination for 2012, while Mt Rwenzori was voted among the top hiking places in Africa. It was the only mountain in Africa that made it to the top 15 best hiking spots in the world.
Uganda is regarded as Africa's best destination for birders. The country, which is the size of United Kingdom, boasts of over 1,058 bird species, accounting for 11% of the globe's total, and half of Africa's.
Uganda was in the 1960s, the cornerstone of tourism in the region. However, the turbulent times in the 1970s and 80s saw the wildlife hunted to virtual extinction in all the national parks. Tourism infrastructure was vandalized and as a result, Uganda lost its regional dominance. Now, Kenya and Tanzania attract more tourists, with only a few coming to Uganda to see the famed mountain gorillas. The magic for these countries has been the stability and heavy investment in marketing their countries.
Last year, for example, Tanzania invested about $23m while Kenya and Rwanda invested $20m and $5m respectively. Yet Uganda instead cut down its tourism budget from $1m to $700,000. Even with this little investment, the return of relative peace coupled with its rich natural diversity, Uganda is steadily regaining its ground. Tourist arrivals have been growing, reaching 1,151,000 in 2011.
Foreign exchange earnings from the sector have been steadily growing too, shooting to $805m in 2011 from $662m in 2010 -with the tourism sector now the country's second foreign exchange earner, after foreign remittances. The revenues may still be far below what Kenya and Tanzania earn from the sector, but Amos Wekesa, the proprietor of Great Lakes Safaris, says if Uganda only got a little push from government, it would surpass what its neighbours get.
"We have all it takes to beat everyone in the region," Wekesa notes, adding: "We just need to up our marketing."
Dr Andrew Seguya, the executive director, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), equally agrees with Wekesa. He says Uganda is second to none in biodiversity richness in the region.
The only red light ahead of this sector could be oil, which has been discovered in the rift valley that harbours majority of the country's national parks and wildlife reserves. However, the oil dollars if used well, could better the tourism sector.